Home » OPINION » Columns » Todd Smith's Spin Cycle: The Branding of South by Southwest (SXSW)

Todd Smith's Spin Cycle: The Branding of South by Southwest (SXSW)

Todd Smith

Todd Smith

South by Southwest — otherwise know by the cool, swank and uber successful acronym SXSW — has transformed into a branding powerhouse that meets in the hip Texas capitol of Austin each March. What began in 1987, and continued to grow in size every year as a more than weeklong series of film, interactive and music festivals, has evolved into a virtual branding behemoth.

Typically, the shindig offers an interactive showcase that lasts for about five days, music for a week and film for nine days concurrently in a fusion of technology, music and marketing.

The SXSW Interactive conference has become a microcosm of what’s happening in our digital society.

This SXSW branding juggernaut is on the leading-edge of how businesses, brands and companies are making major strides in everything from startups to Fortune 500s.

Once you get past the exorbitant transportation challenges at the conference — more than a few SXSWers paid Uber nearly $200 per ride between events – there was a volumes to learn about key trends that will drive the PR, marketing and advertising industry for much of 2014, and beyond!

Beyond the usual suspects of wearable tech, and mobile marketing, some of the best brand gems were how the continued merging of technology and marketing is changing the business landscape.

Between all the panels, interactive workshops, music and stage, several key themes emerged that are part of our transforming industry.

1. Companies are learning how to apply big data. Today, data and analytics are a marketing and communication imperative. It’s simply not enough to have the data; marketers — both at large companies and emerging companies — require actionable insights, and individualized data, that can help drive decision-making. 
The future of big data is “smart data” and “clean data.” In other words, it’s not enough to have it. What matters most now is applying creativity and strategy toward understanding what to do with it.

2. Brands are getting more intelligent. This year, it was very clear that brands were in attendance for one overriding reason — to learn from and listen to emerging and fast growing technology companies. 
Take the perspective of Verizon’s CMO of enterprise solutions, John Harrobin. “Huge companies seek the insights and agility that fast-moving innovators provide. We’re constantly on the lookout for startups who can be additive to our core business on both the enterprise and consumer side.”
Ross Fubini, a partner at Canaan Partners (recounted conversation after conversation with major retail brands and marketing execs (including Victoria’s Secret) that attended the conference. “They were here with the distinct purpose of learning about new technologies to present back to the C-suite. This is business intelligence at its best.”

The smartest brands — big and small — understand the upside of looking downstream (and up) for inspiration and insights.

3. The acquisition spree should continue (but with a twist). Then there’s the trend of non-tech companies snapping up tech companies. One example of this was Staples’ recent acquisition of e-commerce tech startup, Runa. Startups that have managed to build massive, loyal customer bases are prime targets for large retail brands and enterprises looking to expand into niche markets.
Beyond big data, brand intelligence and the buying habits of large companies, lies one theme that will continue to drive the future relevance of SXSW and continue to make it one of the best places to spot trends and network, while simultaneously sipping on cocktails. And that is — the excitement and energetic force of being in a concentrated area with some of the world’s brightest innovators and entrepreneurs.

The festival has come a long way since 1986 when a 31-year-old proofreader and deliveryman for an alternative weekly newspaper in Austin persuaded his bosses to put on a local music festival. That small, grass-roots event — which drew 700 people its inaugural year — has since mushroomed into one of the largest and most influential gatherings on the planet. The interactive/film/music citywide party, drew nearly 70,000 enthusiasts to Austin this year, who filled every hotel room in the city and showcased appearances by Chelsea Clinton and Soundgarden, as well as former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of government surveillance fame and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (both via satellite from undisclosed locations).

Now in its 27th year, SXSW — the name is a play on the classic Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest — has helped connect Internet start-ups with more than $500 million in funding, launched the careers of filmmakers like Lena Dunham, creator and star of the HBO hit show Girls, and pours more than $200 million a year into the local economy.

Across Austin, musical acts both known and unknown cram into nightclubs for all-day, all-night jam sessions, as movie stars mingle with mobile moguls. Prince closed out last year’s festival with a late-night show at a downtown club. This year, the iTunes Festival made its U.S. debut during SXSW with a free, five-day concert featuring Coldplay and Willie Nelson, among others.

As if SXSW weren’t enough, the conference has spawned siblings, including SXSWedu, a four-day symposium focusing on education issues, and SXSW V2V, a Las Vegas-based event focused on start-ups. More are in the works.

What makes SXSW so popular? For starters, it’s one of the few conferences offering three distinct themes — interactive, film and music — all in one place, says Kelly Peacy, a senior vice president with the Professional Convention Management Association, a Chicago-based industry group with 6,000 members. The gathering’s success hinges on its ability to allow attendees from each field to interact with one another, connecting techies with film producers and musicians, all with the common vision of making their marketing resonate more effectively.

After a few years of putting on music seminars and shows, SXSW organizers in 1994 decided to add a multimedia section, to explore the still nascent Internet, and a film section, to showcase local filmmakers. Hugh Forrest, who was hired by SXSW because he was one of the few at the time with a computer, a Macintosh Plus, was put in charge of the multimedia section.


Birth of the internet theater

The first multimedia event showcased the wonders of CD-ROM and featured an “Internet Theater,” housed in a tent on the lawn of a downtown hotel, to show attendees how to access the Web.

Over the years, SXSW has had its ups and downs. Remember the tech-bubble pop of 1999 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks two years later forced people to think beyond brands and performance and focus on more important worldwide events.


SXSW’s Twitter moment

Then came the “Twitter moment.” Having officially launched nine months earlier, Twitter execs attended the 2007 SXSW, setting up flat-screen TVs in the hallways of the conference displaying their start-up’s features. It became an instant sensation, morphing into one of the most popular and valuable start-ups in history.


Foursquare slingshots onto the scene

Two years later, Foursquare, a location-based social networking site, also shot to superstardom at SXSW. Attendees began pouring in, hoping their online idea could become the next big thing. Last year, 30,000 participants attended the interactive side alone.

Jared Hecht, co-founder of Fundera, an online marketplace for small-business loans, has been going to SXSW since 2010, first with micro-blogging platform Tumblr and later representing GroupMe.com, a mobile group-messaging app. In the ensuing years, a barrage of corporate messaging, parties and other new companies have made it tough for start-ups to stand out.

But make no mistake, when it comes to launching a new trend in branding, digital marketing, social media or public relations — an annual plane ticket to Austin is a smart move.


Selfie Capital of the World

Makati City, known as the financial center of the Philippines, can now boast another distinction according to TIME — It is the Selfie Capital of the World.

An examination of hundreds of thousands of selfies — the low-fi, self-shot photographs that are intensely popular among younger social media users — suggests that the city, part of metropolitan Manila and home to 500,000 people, produces more selfies per capita than any other city in the world.

To investigate the geography of selfie-taking, TIME built a database of more than 400,000 Instagram photos tagged “selfie” that included geographic coordinates. In total, the media giant ranked 459 cities to determine the selfiest places on earth. Here a the Top 5:

1. Makati City and Pasig, Philippines — 258 selfie-takers per 100,000 people.

2. Manhattan — 202 selfie-takers per 100,000 people.

3. Miami — 155 selfie-takers per 100,000 people.

4. Anaheim and Santa Ana, Calif. — 147 selfie-takers per 100,000 people.

5. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia — 141 selfie-takers per 100,000 people.


Healthy Mic | Golden RX @SXSW

Call it the perfect Rx for the SXSW tech hangover. For the first time in its history, SXSW has a new focus on health care. Besides panel discussions about the role of technology in wellness, the 2014 conference included a competition for makers of personal-health apps and gadgets. One entrant being a “smart” pill bottle that sends text-message refill reminders to your neighborhood drugstore. Meanwhile, other innovations in tech apps include shelves that beam coupons to smartphones. The Golden Mic goes to continued innovation in health care technology.

Each week, The Spin Cycle will bestow a Golden Mic Award to the person, group or company in the court of public opinion that best exemplifies the tenets of solid PR, marketing and advertising — and those who don’t. Stay tuned — and step-up to the mic! And remember … Amplify Your Brand!

» Todd Smith is president and chief communications officer of Deane, Smith & Partners, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm — based in Nashville, Tenn. — is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, and follow him @spinsurgeon.



… we’d like to ask for your support. More people are reading the Mississippi Business Journal than ever before, but advertising revenues for all conventional media are falling fast. Unlike many, we do not use a pay wall, because we want to continue providing Mississippi’s most comprehensive business news each and every day. But that takes time, money and hard work. We do it because it is important to us … and equally important to you, if you value the flow of trustworthy news and information which have always kept America strong and free for more than 200 years.

If those who read our content will help fund it, we can continue to bring you the very best in news and information. Please consider joining us as a valued member, or if you prefer, make a one-time contribution.

Click for more info

About Ross Reily

Ross Reily is editor of the Mississippi Business Journal. He is a husband to an amazing wife, dad to 3 crazy kids and 2 dogs. He is also a fan of the Delta State Fighting Okra and the Boston Red Sox.


  1. If you want to know if your business will make it into the future, this is the place to gather your real time information, some get it, other do not, the ones that get it are all on top of the games.. real time information; Don’t be the last to know.

Leave a Reply